The Transformation of Ritual

This is an authorized translation of Chinese writer and critic Hu Jiujiu’s article on the Guggenheim exhibition “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World.” The original article 胡赳赳《仪式的变迁:全球艺术史观中的中国当代艺术》was first published on 凤凰艺术 and later 新浪收藏. The English translation was posted here on Oct. 23, 2017.

Photo by Hu Jiujiu. Curators and Artists of “Theater of the World” taking group photos at the VIP opening on Oct. 4.


The Transformation of Ritual:  Chinese Contemporary Art in the Discourse of Global Art History

By Hu, Jiujiu (Visiting Scholar at St. John’s University, Asian Studies)

Translated by Da, Mengna and Fernández Valdés, Gabriel


The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s new exhibition, “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World,” attempts to assert the position of Chinese contemporary art in a global context and compose a history that highlights an evolution of social engagement. Ideologically, the exhibition re-examines and reinterprets the “rise of China.” Academically, it dismisses much frivolous art and declares authorship of several significant artworks. Professionally the Guggenheim Museum’s accomplishment is a feat, despite subjective choices in the curation. Not only does Theater of the World succeed in its ambition, but it establishes an authoritative voice in the discourse of Chinese contemporary art.


Having different standpoints and opinions over the same topic is one of the many sources of energy and chaos in the world. The same is true in the arts. But something truly bizarre is that – as time passes – artwork can become its own counterpoint. Critique could turn into parody, serendipity into classic. More than the power of art, this is the beauty of time. That said, any work of art is a balancing act between dual forces; when one aspect weighs more, the other weighs less.

At the scale of the human species, no individual artist or particular work of art truly matters – from this perspective Earth is but a speck of dust. Yet from dust emerge galaxies which manage to: graze perfection and become a masterpiece; improve the wellbeing of mankind; enlighten and advance our thinking. Since an individual cannot live in isolation – after all, every being depends on each other to live (in Buddhism known as “dependent origination”) – individuals must work to build channels to connect with the world. Capital, politics, and culture are (to the same degree) the most essential of these channels, through which people strive to affect future generations.

To examine contemporary art and establish a “discourse of global art history,” we build on Marshall McLuhan’s vision of a “global village.” The globe shrinks as information grows, like a computer chip. The logic guiding today’s “production of knowledge” has “open-source” qualities. Yet this distributed logic sits atop another logic, a superlogic – the evolution of human nature is ancient and slow.[1] Underneath open-source code, there is a hidden spiritual code underlying everything. As long as we don’t find this spiritual code, every time we introduce a new physical element, our hearts will feel an ominous premonition: unsettled, afraid.

This exhibition of Chinese contemporary art, unprecedented in size, coincides with a the tragic Las Vegas shooting, an even greater, unprecedented event. Of course, events big and small constantly take place. The Nobel Foundation announces this year’s laureates. The Department of Justice continues its probe into the Trump administration. The Village voice, and independent newspaper, announced an end to its print publication. From Roosevelt Island, tourists look at a distant Manhattan skyline. Warmongers move in the shadows while finance moguls perform under the spotlight. Artists now put down their brush to dress up and meet with international curators and collectors. Animal rights activists choose radical means to empower animals over humans.  While a refugee girl speaks to the United Nations about her tragic experience, a middle class boy lives through his own ordeal – he won’t dare go to school out of fear of being bullied. A young man in Tokyo sings streetside Karaoke alone; an immigrant laborer, illegally employed, has been working for over 10 hours in a Manhattan basement.

This is the “theater of the world.” The world as seen by artists is composed of infinite multi-threaded problems to be solved. This is what professor Earl Miller from MIT is working on: does multi-tasking change how human brain circuits are connected? Following those lines, will a multi-tasking society change the course of cognitive evolution in the human species beings?

Back at the Guggenheim: an epic art show is underway. Like that of a fashion runway, its spectacle is a part of modernity; it implies “production”, “presentation”, “impact.” Essentially, a spectacle is a form of art power. That is if art power takes the shape of ritual. The private dinner and the press and VIP previews before the opening all demonstrate a transformation from some sort of ancient ceremony to modern everyday ritual. Curators take the role of priests. Artists become shamans. The audience moves slowly, reverently from one work to the other with the hope of becoming inspired, perhaps even enlightened.

It goes without saying the Guggenheim Museum is a “temple” of art. It brings together top-notch artists and top-tier artwork and intends to write the rulebook on the art world. Not only does the museum aim to impact the industry but also influence the general public. Examples of the museum’s attempts to influence are plenty. It puts certain ideologies like “liberalism” into practice. It defends freedom of speech as a human right. Even as animal rights activists protested three works to be exhibited, the museum chose to prioritize people’s safety. This incident illustrates how to proceed when it comes to prioritizing competing ideas. In the face of a threat, “people’s safety” over “free speech.” Guggenheim reveals its principles: it would be a disaster to either assault or support ideas at the expense of life.

Recently, “global art history” has become a popular label in art history studies, but it is no new concept. Rooted in historian Arnold Joseph Toynbee’s insight of an overarching global history, it also borrows from the Annales School, a group of historians led by Fernan Braudel whose focus was long-term social history. Nevertheless, contemporary art can hardly be stretched in time but it does spread throughout space (possible due to rapid technological development). Therefore, the discourse of “global contemporary art history” remains flat: it has big enough presence, but its synchronicity is limited to the present moment.[2]

In any case, most milestones in the history of contemporary art take place after the Cold War. America aspired to reconfigure the map of the art world and its distribution of power. Whether it was institutional initiative or popular movements, the whole country shared this passion – a sign of art power shifting from the top down – and took advantage of its economic and political position. Therefore, avant-garde at the time meant to subvert and destroy. Driven by a desire for personal freedom and liberation, artists scrambled to be deviant. Many artworks were immature – a good thing as maturity is a sign of decay and death – but the concepts were wild. New York has an East Village, Beijing must have one too. You’re bourgeois, I’m bohemian. During the period, artists competed to be least restrained. Art became a race of courage and expression. Art became a rebellion against shame and moral restrictions. Art even stepped out of line and became inappropriate performance, rallies. Contemporary art came off the easel and set foot on land, environment, and society – where artists used their yet-to-be-mature ideas and skills to coerce and be coerced.

Selecting the slice of history between 1989 and 2008 is an insurance strategy: it won’t rustle any feathers. No two milestone years would be quite as striking; both are particularly associated with death and rejoice. It goes without saying many know the story of 1989.  Almost two decades later we witnessed another pinnacle of death and rejoice in China: the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony coincided with the Wenchuan Great Earthquake that ravaged much of Sichuan province. These events shocked the world.

While rejoice is commemorated by celebration, death is mourned through rite. Ai Weiwei’s work carries that sense of rite; he is an outlawed priest. Motivations aside, he seems to possess indisputable authority and leadership in a new rebellious “protestantism.” Meanwhile, Xu Bing’s work is much more subtle. After witnessing the monumental tragedy of 9/11, he found inspiration in the billows of smoke and collected a bag of dust amidst debris (missing even from the collections of the 9/11 Memorial Museum). Where Does the Dust Itself Collect (2004) contains a strong sense of introspection and compassion. Xu Bing’s work is a prayer to death that carries a sense of rite with profound and encompassing meaning.

Yet some Chinese artists and critics are not happy with 1989 as a starting point for discussion as it necessarily ignores earlier significant movements and organizations such as “No Name Painting Association”, “Stars Art”, “85 New Wave,” among others.  The year is a turning point; not only does it evoke landmark events but it also bridges past and future. 1989 marks a shift in history, a moment of change and transformation.

The 1980’s are currently a popular topic of research for the Chinese academia. After all, many movements and schools of thought can be traced back to that decade. Despite poverty and censorship, ideas flourished and dreams lived strong. The intellectual world of art, poetry, and academics took up “expressing aspirations.” Zhang Zai, an 11th century philosopher, followed the classic tradition when he proclaimed “To continue lost teachings for past sages. To establish peace for all future generations.” However, during the 1990s, the use of aspirations declined. As the new century approached, people became self-centered and cunning “to survive at all costs in the chaos.”[3] Big waves of capitalism, consumerism, globalization, and materialism made people impetuous; it’s human nature to go after profit and avoid pitfall. Most chose the easy path and idealism was set aside so that people could focus on chasing success. Therefore, the decades between 1989 and 2008 are a period where China leaned in towards utilitarianism.

As a result, even those within the Chinese contemporary art world decided to part ways with this “ritual” as it deteriorated.  In the West, contemporary art surged as a whole during the 90’s, pushed by capital with a taste for art (dear bad taste[4]). Foundations, museums, galleries, private collections, and other gatekeepers sprung up. The press and academia became a pair of wings: the press led the public, the academy led the intelligentsia. No matter the controversy or conspiracy, contemporary art had become fait accompli. But art operates on aesthetics, and is therefore all but subjective. “You are what you are said to be, and you are not what you are said not to be.” Such a Chinese proverb is the best commentary on contemporary art. To be fair, anything that becomes an industry will be a mix of both bad and good. Industry is “sperm wars.”[5] Some sperm intends to produce offspring and refrain from any tending whatsoever. This is the most successful strategy in biology; we have to face the fact that “fraud” and “deceit” are morally unethical but biologically brilliant.

Even for an exhibition of Chinese contemporary art of this scale, it is impossible to display a comprehensive and impartial selection of work. There must be a number of pieces looking to be legitimized but are actually a ploy to deceive the West. Are foreigners easy to deceive? Yes, indeed, because what foreigners and Chinese people care to work hard and fight for is different. Chinese people are opportunistic whereas foreigners put effort into foolish objectives. This is why foreigners have leading roles in the field of Chinese studies; they pursue the progress of human thought while their fellow Chinese scholars look to settle down with tenure. This, of course, would be a bad generalization. However, both sides are aware of the situation.

Even in a high profile exhibition, small works will slip in via good old fashioned nepotism. Part of Chinese society is built on relationships and they can and should be part of the show – just as animal protection organizations interfered with the exhibition. The different artists’ reactions to the protest – written, verbal, or silent – all display attitude, but the whole spectacle is modus operandi; none of it is new. This is why contemporary art hasn’t moved forward for years; it shifted from feeding its surroundings to being fed by its surroundings. With the advent of a mediocre era, “avant-garde” has turned into a tool endorsed by the middle class to mock the middle class. The ritual deteriorates further: on the one hand it’s increasingly refined, but on the other it is increasingly vulgar.

Previously, contemporary art went through waves of “symbolic art,” “deconstructive art,” and so on. Now it has devolved into “conceptual art”, or “exclusive art.” Either you create something never done before or you make it better than anyone else has before. You must claim your territory like a peeing puppy to announce you are first at your accomplishment; this is quite an American way of going about things. Artists even have to claim both copyright and right of explanation. Since a large-scale work usually involves two parties – planner and performer (like architect and contractor) – artists who excel at explaining have a clear advantage. This is especially true if they can provide the appropriate interpretation for the time and place; a brown-nosing work could easily become an intentionally sarcastic work at a moment’s notice.

When contemporary art came off the easel, when two-dimensionality developed to its full extent and was no longer a defining feature, its history experienced a second explosion: artists turned to installations, videos, and  – if you look closer – readymades. Like poetry free of meter, it became easier to create something but harder to make it good – it takes time.

It’s also noteworthy that the Guggenheim carefully made significant  adjustments to the authorship of certain pieces. One of them is Xiao Lu’s Dialogue (1989), an installation where she fired two gunshots at her mirror image. The gunshots took place on the opening day of the memorable “1989 China/Avant-Garde Exhibition” which was immediately shut down within the hour after the gunshots.[1]  For many years the piece was considered a collaboration between Xiao Lu and Tang Song until Xiao Lu claimed exclusive authorship in 2003. For the first time in the international community the Guggenheim now declared it as such.

Another example is a collaborative performance piece To Add One Metre To An Anonymous Mountain (1995). In 1995 a group of artists gathered at the summit of an unnamed mountain in Beijing and laid their naked bodies one on top of the other, increasing the height of the mountain by a full metre. Zhang Huan[2]  later claimed the performance as his own work, but other participants (unsurprisingly) disagreed. The situation turned awkward when every participant started selling videos and photographs of the performance and alleging authorship. The only rightful copyright holder without any objection would be Lv Nan, who photographed the performance, but he gave it up and shared film copies with others. The Guggenheim reached a verdict for this unsettled case: every participant’s name is up on the wall. This is a co-authored work and the original idea is a result of collective discussion. Why didn’t Chinese rock bands pan out? We can’t agree on how much we contribute and profit from the collective.

These two works are important because they both involved in a mysterious sense of ritual despite their motives. Xiao Lu’s two gunshots, no matter what her true intent was, are described by many as the last spark of Chinese avant-garde and even a precursor to a much more notorious event later in the same year (she revealed in 2003 that Dialogue was about a dreadful love relationship). [3] The two gunshots are important because they were precisely what the “public psychology” needed  at that historical stage. On the other hand, Anonymous Mountain was performed by a group of artists who suffered in extreme depression – a night before eruption. A rather startling and absurd “ritual,” it exposes a psychology of “sacrifice” and “prayer” to life and art.

Artists and poets are shamans of our time, even if sometimes unpopular. Before becoming idolized, shamans must go through a series of struggles, appeals, and “huzun” (melancholy) in the sense of Orhan Parmuk. After modernity, the public was coerced into consumption (the result of production) and competition (the cause of production). If any conspiracy exists it’s the one preserving perpetual labor in order to maintain consumption. There is no place in people’s hearts to dwell in poetry. Artist straddle two ends: they can either be conspirators of the theory of consumption, or existentialist philosophers.

Nevertheless, the only issue with this exhibition is that it over-amplifies the quality of “social engagement.” By only picking artworks related to social issues the show is anchored in a Eurocentric perspective. Imagine a North Korean art exhibition in China and the works it chose to showcase. Similarly, strip away the buzzwords wrapped in layers of sophisticated, academic packaging and you’ll notice a presumed mindset – art as protest. Rather than watching Hollywood blockbusters in cinemas, it’s better to enjoy a backdrop narrative of art at the museum ready to sell us gunshots, demonstrations, hit lists, Golden Gate soldiers, and appalling disasters.

If we take this exhibition as a benchmark, it will mislead Chinese artists to only focus on social engagement and steer them away from pursuing other paths. My advice is this:  “social engagement” is already in the past; at most it’s not that relevant. It will prevent art from going deeper. After all, making art is not just picking trendy research topics. An artists that picks their subject based only on popularity without improving their skills or spiritual cultivation… they can only be a clown; artists shouldn’t weaken their power as shamans (but they must also avoid pretentious mystification).

I criticize the art industry for separating into strata: its character and cognition become fixed in stasis. Unable to yield, there is no extrication. As long as contemporary art does not contribute outward but instead relies on recurring characters,  in-breeding, and class-hierarchy, it will be reduced to a sort of middle-class mindset: meticulously maintain the operation in order to preserve self-identity.

This Chinese art show – the biggest ever in North America – is a broad review of Chinese art power. Some artists may be displeased by the use of  “China” in the exhibition title, as they might consider themselves more “international.” But the concept does refer to Chinese society and the Chinese era; we also see some artworks by foreign artists that concern events in the history of China. Regardless, the Guggenheim is giving out medals to Chinese artists because they believe more or less that “Chinese artists not only play important roles in the evolution of contemporary art, but also in their own way encourage the prosperity of contemporary art” (or something like that).

Oh great; everyone is happy now. Ceremonies and celebrations usually require that they satisfy all visitors and guests. But even as a top-of-the-line party that offers a gateway into China, the exhibition is undeniably a towering monument of nostalgia rather than the flying banner of a glorious revolution.
[1] “The evolution of human nature” refers to David P. Barash’s book Homo Mysterious: Evolutionary Puzzles of Human Nature published in 2012.
[2] The concept of “synchronicity” was first coined by psychologist Carl Jang in 1952. “Synchronicity” means events that are “meaningful coincidences.”
[3] “To survive at all costs in the chaos” is a classical quote of the ancient thinker and strategist Zhuge Liang (181-234 AD)
[4] Dear Bad Taste (2005) is a book by Yifei Media introducing famous artists in the history of modern and contemporary art. Published only in Chinese.
[5] Robin Baker, Sperm Wars, published in 1996.

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